Watch Vital Signs on CNN International (all times ET): Nov. 9 at 7:30 am, 8:30 pm;
Nov. 10 at 1:30 am and 2:30 pm; Nov. 13 at 4:30 am and 12:30pm; Nov. 16 at 1:30 and 2:30 pm; and Nov. 17 at 7:30 am
In his home in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Lenny White gathers up his supplies for the day: a red, white and blue striped barber pole, hair clippers and a table-top jukebox – all the makings of a pop-up barbershop, catered to a very special group of clients.
White is known as the “dementia-friendly barber.” Along with his assistant, Jonathan Wray, he visits care homes across Northern Ireland to cut the hair of men living with dementia.
“When these men come into the room,” White said, “they think they are coming into the barbershop, which they really are. It is Lenny’s Barbershop, but it’s not on the Main Street. It’s in their living accommodations in the care home setting.”
White accomplishes that feeling by replicating a traditional barbershop, down to the music playing on the jukebox, from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Elvis Presley.
“It [helps] bring back memories of times gone by,” White said. “Trying to bring a bit of positivity into the day that can be quite difficult for them.”
At the Beechvale Nursing Home, manager Kathie Stevenson has seen the change in many of the men living there firsthand. “It’s really difficult to get the men included in activities, and just different things for them. So I happened to be chatting with Lenny – he’s a really vibrant fun guy – [and] we thought this would be something good for our gentlemen. It just really lifts their spirits. It gives the men a really good, purposeful activity, and something that they can relate to from the past. So, it’s been really positive.”
Dementia has been recognized as a public health priority by the World Health Organization, and for good reason. According to the WHO, there are 50 million people living with dementia around the world, with an additional 10 million being diagnosed every year. Alzheimer’s disease, which is one form of dementia, is by far the most prevalent type, accounting for 60% to 70% of diagnoses.
There is currently no cure for dementia, so healthcare providers are turning to life-enrichment alternatives for their patients, meaning services like White’s are likely to increase.
“The fascinating thing about dementia is that while it’s an epidemic and so many people are experiencing it, each individual’s experience is going to be very different,” said Carolyn Clevenger, clinical director for the Emory Integrated Memory Care Clinic in Atlanta, Georgia.
“The average age of patients in our clinic is 79. So when you’re talking about an illness that primarily affects older people, you have this entire lived experience that you’re tapping into so that you can say, ‘What’s been most important over time?’”
It’s vital to find areas of engagement between residents and those who provide them services, Clevenger continued. “They care about one another,” Clevenger said. “It’s a small community in that space and they thrive. They absolutely flourished with the additional connection to other people.”
At Beechvale, that’s what Stevenson has witnessed.
“The gentlemen are really difficult to encourage out of their rooms to participate,” she said. “So having Lenny and Johnny coming along, it just brings them out of their room, gives them something to look forward to every so many weeks.”
Those friendships and social engagement are believed to actually lengthen lifespans, and the quality of those years. And for everything White has done for others with his traveling barbershop, he’s experienced it right back.
“They definitely help me in my life, whenever I come in and I see those men,” he said. “And I have got a purpose to look after these men. In fact, it probably helps me more than it helps them, and they don’t even realize that. I just treat them as a friend. For me, the dementia doesn’t even come into it because I’m treating them just as a normal person. I see them for who they are.”
CNN’s Stefanie Blendis contributed to this report.